The Last Enemy-Death
April 10th, 1955
THE LAST ENEMY – DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 15:12-26
4-10-55 10:50 a.m.
Now in your Bible, turn to the middle part of the New Testament, the first Corinthian letter – the first Corinthian letter, the fifteenth chapter, the resurrection chapter of the first Corinthian letter: 1 Corinthians 15. And we’re going to read together the pastor’s text for this morning – the middle part of the chapter from the twelfth through the twenty-sixth verses. First Corinthians 15 from the twelfth verse through the twenty-sixth verse. Now do we all have it? First Corinthians 15, beginning at the twelfth verse. Now may we stand together? First Corinthians 15, beginning at the twelfth through the twenty-sixth verses. Now together:
Now if Christ be preached that He rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen.
And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain and your faith is also vain.
Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He raised not up – if so be that the dead rise not.
For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised.
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins!
Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward they that are Christ’s at His coming.
Then cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father, when He shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.
For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet.
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
[1 Corinthians 15:12-26]
Now, Lord, bless the pastor today as he speaks of the glorious, glorious triumph we have in Christ Jesus. Amen.
The last verse that we read is the text of the message this morning – 1 Corinthians 15:26: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
Man has been able to conquer most of his enemies. Long, long time ago when the caveman fought for his life with a big heavy club, with a stone axe, his enemies that threatened his very existence were those that jumped upon him out of the darkness of the night and out of the impenetrable forests. The beasts with the fang and the claw, the lion and the tiger, these were the greatest enemies of man, but man overcame the enemy in the forest and in the night.
One of the great enemies of man has been disease: yellow fever, diphtheria, bubonic plague, the black plague, tuberculosis. So many of those diseases the ingenuity of man is being able to conquer. Yellow fever is almost wiped out of the earth. Malaria is no more here in America. The bubonic plague is almost a thing of the past. We are even now grappling with polio in the hope that any day the announcement can be made that it is forever conquered.
Man has conquered his enemies. Man has almost been able to overwhelm the elements that war against him, harnessing the sea, swimming through it like a fish, battling the storms of the heavens, sailing through it like a bird, turning the desert into a rose.
Oh, in how many areas and in how many fields has the man been able to conquer his enemies? All but one, just one. So far as I know, I have never yet heard any philosopher or any metaphysician or any theologian or any scientist stand up to say, "We have hope that in the future we shall be able to conquer age and death." The last enemy, the last enemy, death [1 Corinthians 15:26]; however our path may lead, it leads to the grave [Hebrews 9:27].
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
All that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory but lead to the grave.
["Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," by Thomas Gray, c. 1750]
That is the end of every trail. It falls into the grave. That is the end of every life. Psalm 90:9: "We spend our years as a tale that is told." It leads to the grave.
When I was a youth, the president of Baylor University died, and I was asked to stand at the head of the casket. As his body was placed in newly-completed Waco Hall and as the people came by to look upon his face, and as I stood there, I watched as a youth that long, long procession of men and women and young people and boys and girls as they passed by that bier and looked upon the face of the great president of Baylor University.
I have been doing that thing identical ever since. For the years of this ministry, since I was a boy, I have stood at the head of a casket and watched that solemn procession pass by: weeping wives, broken-hearted mothers, disappointed fathers, crying children – the never-ending, never-ceasing passing by the bier of the dead. The white horseman [Revelation 6:2] riding forth in vigor and in strength and in youth and in conquest but always behind him the red horseman [Revelation 6:4] with his sword, and the black horseman [Revelation 6:5] with his balances, and the pale horseman [Revelation 6:8] with his scythe.
In a beautiful display of the world’s great art, in the art gallery of Chicago, I saw a picture there called The Race of Death. On a track was a hooded skeleton with a long scythe in his hand, and he was running around the track by himself. The thing that made it so impressive to me was that in the race of death he’s by himself. He doesn’t have any competitors. There’s nobody to run with him. He always wins. He presses upon every foe, and he overtakes us, and he overwhelms us, and he overcomes us – the race of death.
The great monuments of the world are to death. That’s one of the strangest things as I have gone around this earth and looked at it. The pyramids in Egypt stood for hundreds of years, for millenniums of years, and men wonder why were they built, and who erected them, and what was the cause of their towering height. When it was discovered why they were built – you know why, they are monuments to the dead. They are tombs of the Pharaohs.
When you schoolboys were taught to name the seven wonders of the ancient world, one of them was the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the ancient capital of Caria – the Mausoleum. It was erected in memory of their wonderful king Mausolos. And what is it? It was a tomb. It was a monument to the dead.
I have looked upon the tombs of the Roman Caesars like the tomb of Hadrian in Rome. I have walked down the Appian Way and on either side, miles and miles, great ornate – at one time lavish and beautiful – tombs where the Roman patrician when he died sought to erect something that would perpetuate his memory. So on the Appian Way, miles and miles on either side, the beautiful tombs of the dead.
I have looked upon what to me is the most beautiful building in the world: the Taj Mahal. It is called a teardrop of love of Shah Jahan. But what is it? It is the most beautifully wrought out piece of architecture I have ever seen and a monument to the dead. It’s a tomb. It’s a tomb.
They said, "By all means you must go to Nara, the sacred city of Japan, where the emperors of Japan are buried. You must look upon the tombs of the emperors." There’s not anybody who goes to Paris but will always be invited to visit the Invalides – the gorgeous, ornate tomb of Napoleon. There wouldn’t be anybody that would ever go to Great Britain that by all means should not and ought not to see Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Abbey is the tomb, the sarcophagi, of the great of the British Empire.
I say around this earth have I looked upon the monuments of this earth to death – visiting the tombs of the dead. Only thing is, I visited one other tomb. Here is the body of Napoleon. Here, the tomb of the Caesars. There, in silent death, the beautiful wife of Shah Jahan. There the emperor of Japan.
I visited – I visited one other tomb. The Arab guide said, "You’re a preacher. I thought maybe early in the morning, being the Lord’s Day, Sunday’s day, early in the morning, I might come by and get you, and we’d go to the tomb together. Be there as the sun rises over the east."
I said, "Surely."
So early in the morning while it was yet dark, he knocked at the door, and we went to a little knoll just beyond the Damascus gate called in the Hebrew tongue "Golgotha" and in the Latin language "Calvary"; in our language, "the place of a skull." It kind of looks that way – like a skull, like death itself. And there at the foot of a little knoll is a garden, and on the inside of that garden is a tomb. And the Arab guide said, "And I’ll stay out here while you go in."
So my companion, Dr. McCall, and I went into that tomb. Empty. We went into that tomb. Empty. One of us sat at the head; the other one of us sat at the foot where the angel sat. And I opened this little Greek New Testament, and I read out of my Greek New Testament once again the glorious story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior: that empty tomb.
So I thought this morning, I’d read it as it is here in the Book just as Matthew wrote it; and if you want to follow it in the Book, you turn to the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Matthew, the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Matthew. Now when I read it, of course, it will not be beautiful English like you have in the King James Version of the Bible, but this is the thing just literally written.
Opse – begins with an adverb that means "at the end of, as it was closing." "At the end of the Sabbath, as it was dawning toward the first day of the week, came Mary of Magdala – Mary from the town of Magdala – and the other Mary to see the sepulcher" [Matthew 28:1].
"And, behold, it came to pass a great seismos – a great earthquake – for an angel of the Lord coming down from heaven, and coming to, rolled the stone away and sat upon it [Matthew 28:2]. His appearance – not just his countenance, his face – his whole appearance was as lightning, and his garments – His clothing – white, white as snow [Matthew 28:3]. And for fear of him, the keepers eseisthēsan – there’s your word again, seismos, they quaked – and for fear of him the keepers quaked. They trembled, and they became as dead men" [Matthew 28:4].
"And answering, the angel said to the women, ‘You, you do not fear. Do not be afraid, you. For I know that you are seeking Jesus, the One who was crucified. He is not here; He is raised, even as He said. Come, see the place where He was laid [Matthew 28:5-6]. And go quickly, say to His disciples that He is raised from the dead, and behold, "He goes before you into Galilee; there you shall see Him." Behold, I’ve said it to you. I’ve told you’ [Matthew 28:7]. And they went away quickly from the tomb with fear and great rejoicing. They ran to announce to His disciples" [Matthew 28:8].
And that’s the way it is in Greek. It just doesn’t make good English. "They ran to announce to His disciples" [Matthew 28:8] – to tell the disciples. "And behold, Jesus met them face-to-face" [Matthew 28:9]. Jesus met them saying, "Chairete." That’s just the Greek word of greeting: "hail" – literally means "hail," chairete. "Jesus Himself met them face-to-face, chairete. And they came to Him and they clasped His feet and they worshiped Him" [Matthew 28:9].
All those words are expressive of the intense feeling and amazement of those women. And they came to Him. They came close to Him, and they clasped His feet. They held Him fast, and they worshiped Him [Matthew 28:9].
Then He says to them – Jesus – Jesus says to them, "Do not fear. You go and you tell My brethren that they go away into Galilee, there shall they see Me" [Matthew 28:10].
Now the sixteenth verse: "Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into the mountain which was appointed them by Jesus. And seeing Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted" [Matthew 28:16-17] – not of the eleven disciples. In 1 Corinthians 15:6, over five hundred brethren at once were there. Some of them doubted, and Jesus came to them. Jesus drew near to them.
And He broke the silence, saying to them, "It is given unto Me" – that’s a timeless aorist – "It is given unto Me all authority" [Matthew 28:18]. And that’s an exact translation of that word "authority."
It is given unto Me – all authority in heaven and upon the earth.
Going therefore, make disciples of all of the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Teaching them to keep all the things whatsoever I have commanded you; and behold, I, I am with you
– and it’s repeated –
and behold, I, I am with you all the days, even unto the consummation of the age.
Now, the meaning and the message of that solemn morning. First, it turned their sorrow into joy. Oh, the heartbrokenness of those disciples as they mourned and wept, came to that sepulcher to look upon the dead. Vanished: every hope, every dream. All of it, all of it, gone. And when they came to the sepulcher, the stone rolled away, an angel from God: "He’s not here" [Matthew 28:1-6]. Not the Lord Jesus. Did you think death could hold Him? The bonds of the grave destroy Him? "He’s not here. He’s arisen" [Matthew 28:6]. He’s alive! "Come, look at the place where he was laid, and go, go tell His disciples that He’s raised from the dead" [Matthew 28:6-7]. And in fear – never, never does a man come in the presence of God without that feeling of awe and wonder [Exodus 3:1-16; Isaiah 6:5; Revelation 1:17]. All these things are too great for us.
With fear and with great rejoicing, with gladness unspeakable, they ran to bring the disciples word: "He’s alive! He’s alive! He’s not dead. He’s not dead – not Jesus. He’s not dead! Our Lord is alive. He’s alive! He’s alive. He’s alive" [Matthew 28:8].
Second thing: that morning took the sting out of death. "O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be unto God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" [1 Corinthians 15:55, 57].
When John saw Him, he says, "And I fell at his feet as one dead. And he laid His right hand upon me saying, Fear not, fear not; I am the First and the Last." I was here before all creation. I’ll be here when the elements have dissolved with fervent heat and the world burned up in fire [2 Peter 3:7, 12]. Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. "I am He that was dead; and behold, I am alive forevermore; and I, I have the keys of hell and of death" [Revelation 1:17-18], and I have the keys of Hades and of the grave. They’re in My hands.
There’s no sting in it any longer. There’s no victory in it anymore. "Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" [1 Corinthians 15:58].
And one other in my text: it was the destruction of death. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death [1 Corinthians 15:26].
"Well, what do you mean, Preacher? We’re still dying. We’re still growing older, and we still fall into that terrible grave. What do you mean?"
It is the destruction of death. This is what I mean. This is what I mean: Christians don’t die. They don’t. No, sir. Christians don’t die. You listen to the Word of God: "I show you a mystery. We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, for the trumpet shall sound and we shall all be changed" [1 Corinthians 15:52]. Christians don’t die. We fall asleep in Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:13] – these bodies do. And our spirits go to be with the Lord [2 Corinthians 5:8] awaiting that resurrection day when in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we are all changed and the dead are raised incorruptible [1 Corinthians 15:51-54].
Jesus looked upon weeping Martha and weeping Mary. He said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never, never die" [John 11:25-26].
Christians don’t die. We just change from this house of clay some day into the new house made without hands of God in heaven [2 Corinthians 5:1]. We just leave this place to live in a better place. We don’t belong here – not God’s children [Hebrews 11:13].
We’re in a pilgrimage here. We’re on our way to heaven.
I am a stranger here, Heav’n is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, Heav’n is my home.
Sorrows and dangers stand round me on every hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.
["I’m But a Stranger Here," by Thomas R. Taylor, 1836]
Christians don’t die; they just go home [2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23-24]. They just go home. There comes a time when we’re ready for heaven [2 Timothy 4:6-8]. There comes a time when our mission is done in the earth. There comes a day when our task is finished, and the Lord says, "Come up higher. It’s better over here."
Christians are not afraid. Christians don’t tremble before death [1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8]. We may fear the Lord in awe and in wonder. We may tremble before Him, but we’re not afraid of death. Jesus took away its sting and its hurt [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. We’re not afraid of the grave. Jesus was victorious over it. We’re not afraid of that final and last enemy for he is destroyed in the triumph of the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So we live our lives in the faith and in the love and in the patience of the Lord Jesus. And when we meet that last enemy, that final, final enemy, and when we come face to face with that final enemy, we shall shout, "Thanks be to God, who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" [1 Corinthians 15:57] That’s the message of Easter. That’s the message of today. That’s the message and the hope of Jesus our Christ.
Now, we must sing our song. While we sing it, while we sing it, in that topmost balcony to the last, last row, from side to side, in this great balcony around, on this lower floor, anywhere, somebody you, while we make appeal today, would you give your heart in faith to the Lord Jesus? "As it says in the Book, as God has witnessed, I believe the Word and the testimony of God. I, too, believe that He liveth, and because He lives we shall live also. My victory, too, shall be in Him." Would you come?
Is there somebody, you, would put your home together today? One of you belongs, one of you does not. Would you put your home together today and come and stand here by me? "Preacher, today we put our home together in Christ." Would you? However God would say the word, however God would make the appeal – trusting Jesus or putting your life with us here in this ministry – would you make your way to the front and give me your hand? "Preacher, I’ve given my heart and faith to God, and here I am. Here I come," while we stand and while we sing.